Thursday, January 28, 2010

What a difference a voiceless alveolar plosive makes

I was walking home with a couple buddies after our late Sunday classes. It was 9:45pm and we were just passing the petrol station and the laundry when a young man in a wrinkled thobe (robe) but no shemagh (linen head dress) stepped up alongside us, shook hands enthusiastically and started into a friendly, well…over-friendly conversational jabber in basic beginner English.

One of the guys I was with is usually pretty chatty with strangers, or else the interloper, in his mid-20s, knew him from the laundry, so I just listened in for a moment as we walked. The conversation seemed to consist mostly of one word, “smile” or “smiling,” repeated over and over, back and forth between the two guys. After a couple minutes of this nauseating exchange I could hear my buddy indicating to the guy, without breaking stride, that we needed to be on our way and kept saying “so long” and “have a nice night.”

The guy wouldn’t stop bugging us though so I stepped in with my new Arabic word of the day, which I had just learned from the students. I was warned that it was rather harsh and should only be used when you really need to get rid of someone. It’s considered quite rude, the equivalent of “Get the H out of here you annoying person.”

After a few minutes of watching the intruding guy dog our heels I figured this would be a good time to try it out.

So I turned to the shadow guy and said what might be phonetically rendered as [dose].

I had been practicing during the day with students so I thought I had it down pretty fair.

The guy still wouldn’t leave us, even after we sped up and waved our hands goodbye. I was busy calling to him “dose dose dose!”

The next day I reported my attempts to students who laughed and quickly informed me that the Arabic word I really wanted had more of a ‘t’ sound and no vowel. It should have been (again, more or less phonetically): [tose] with barely a hint of the ‘o’; more like a hissed [ts].

I learned that what I actually said to the shadowy figure was what you might say to a driver moving too slowly when you want him to step on the gas—in effect, “go faster.”

Linguistically, it’s only just the difference between a voiceless “t” and a voiced “d” really.

Culturally, it’s the difference between a shadowy sidekick and an unencumbered walk down Al Farazdaq Street.

[Note: At the risk of getting all word-wonky on you, the linguistic terms "voiced" and "unvoiced" simply mean the vocal cords are vibrating or not, respectively -- touch your throat to feel the difference. "Alveolar" means that the tip of the tongue is touching or near the inner ridge of the gums of the upper front teeth. And "plosive" just means that a burst of air is expelled. You can feel it by holding a piece of paper in front of your mouth.]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Paucity of Post Its

Is it just my imagination or are Post It notes something of a rarity here?

Fact is, trying to find a yellow sticky anywhere around my place of business is like trying to find a dumpster without a crew of cats.

It's hard to believe an office can function without a half-dozen sizes of Post Its but for some reason the Saudis just don't use them much. You can find them in a stationery store, but they're not stocked in my employer's supply cabinet. Those who want them usually load up at the Jarir Bookstore.

What they do have is pencils. The Saudis are crazy about pencils and each of our offices is equipped with a snazzy electric pencil sharpener. Furthermore, each newcomer finds a few pencils as part of his deskset.

For a while I thought it was just the students -- who are almost exclusively pencil users. But even the administrators keep a pencil handy at their desks. You'd be hard-pressed to find a student with a pen, by the way. Or a laptop.

They do all have mobile phones though, which, I suspect in a couple years will put laptops out of business among younger people.

My latest purchase, for myself, is a white board--also not considered a necessity, in this part of the kingdom anyway.

I'd write some more about office supplies but I've got to get busy cutting up my large Post Its into little squares.